Book Review: The Untenability of Faitheism…



From Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. His most recent book is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, Jerry Coyne, Viking Penguin, New York, 2015. ISBN: 0670026530.

Between 2005 and 2007, a quartet of bestsellers by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens launched the New Atheism. Emboldened by the growing success of science in explaining the world (including our own minds), inspired by new research on the sources of religious belief, and galvanized by the baleful influence of religion in world affairs (particularly 9/11 and its aftermath), these Four Horsemen of the New Atheism — as they came to be called — pressed the case that God does not exist and that many aspects of organized religion are pernicious.

Though in the ensuing decade a growing sliver of the population has become disenchanted with religion, the majority of Americans still believe in God. Indeed, even many intellectuals — including scientists — are not ready to let go of religion. Few sophisticated people, of course, profess a belief in the literal truth of the Bible or in a God who flouts the laws of physics. But whether it comes from a loyalty to family and tribe, a fear of alienating purse-string-holding politicians and foundations, or a reluctance to concede that nerdy scientists might be right about the most fundamental questions of existence, many intellectuals have proclaimed that the new atheists have gone too far and that key components of religion are worth salvaging.

The backlash against the New Atheists has given rise to a new consensus among faith-friendly intellectuals, and their counterattack is remarkably consistent across critics with little else in common. The new atheists are too shrill and militant, they say, and just as extreme as the fundamentalists they criticize. They are preaching to the choir, and only driving moderates into the arms of religion. People will never be disabused of their religious beliefs, and perhaps they should not be, because societies need unifying creeds to promote altruism and social cohesion. Anyway, most people treat religious doctrine allegorically rather than literally, and even if they do treat it literally, it’s not these folk beliefs that serious thinkers should engage with, but rather the sophisticated versions of religion worked out by erudite theologians.
According to this new consensus, science, too, relies on faith, namely its commitment to the empirical method and its assumption that the universe is lawful. Confined to the observable and the verifiable, science is, in this view, incapable of proving or disproving the existence of a metaphysical entity such as God. Most importantly, science is unable to discover all truths, particularly those concerned with meaning, purpose, and morality. If science and religion just stayed on their own sides of the bed — their “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould put it — we could all just get along. This family of reactions has been called “I’m-an-atheist-but,” “belief-in-belief,” “accommodationism,” and, my favorite, “faitheism.”

The term faitheism was coined by Jerry Coyne, a Drosophila biologist who made major contributions to our understanding of speciation before becoming a prolific essayist, blogger and a vociferous public defender of the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology. (How vociferous? His blog is called ‘whyevolutionistrue’.) His latest book, Faith Versus Fact, is intended not to pile on the arguments for atheism but to advance the debate into its next round. It is a brief against the faitheists — scientists and religionists alike — who advocate a make-nice accommodation between science and religion. As with Michael Corleone’s offer to Nevada Senator Pat Geary in The Godfather Part II, Coyne’s offer to religion on the part of science is this: Nothing.

This sounds more imperialistic and scientistic than it really is, because Coyne defines ‘science’ broadly, to encompass any system of belief grounded by reason and evidence, rather than faith. On this definition, many of the humanities, such as history and philosophy, count as ‘science’, not just the traditional physical and social sciences.

You might object that this definition of science is so expansive as to be meaningless, but one thing that Coyne and his opponents agree on is that religion falls outside it. Consider the following common line of reasoning: science is incapable of telling us what is moral; therefore, we need religion to do so. People who advance this argument (and there are many — Coyne names names) have omitted a vast middle ground of secular reasoning, namely mainstream moral philosophy, which Coyne, in effect, treats as continuous with science.

There’s another reason that Coyne’s characterization of science is far from vacuous: it admits of no syncretism, hybrid, or other mongrel with religious faith. This intransigence is not a quibble over the meaning of the word ‘science’; it’s a statement of how people with any appreciation of the value of science ought to fix their beliefs. They should treat all claims with skepticism, and provisionally accept only those that are warranted by arguments and evidence that anyone can recognize. They should not accept claims on the grounds of revelation, doctrine, authority, tribal solidarity, subjective appeal, or no reason at all — that is, on faith.

Coyne rejects the common argument that science itself is based on faith in the validity of reason and the lawfulness of nature. He reiterates the point made by many philosophers that we don’t, in fact, ‘believe’ in reason; we use reason — as does, necessarily, anyone who raises the question of the validity of reason in the first place. Reason is non-negotiable; the same cannot be said of standard matters of faith, such as the divinity of Jesus or the existence of an afterlife. But Coyne’s own philosophy is more pragmatic than foundational: science works. It makes valid predictions, from hominin fossils to the cosmic background radiation, and it allows us to change the world, from curing urinary tract infections to putting a man on the moon. This success provides strong — albeit not certain — grounds for believing that its methods and assumptions are valid. After all, the universe could have been like a dream, in which any bizarre sequence of events is possible. Taking note of its overwhelming lawfulness is not at all like accepting claims about miracles and deities on faith. Even the deepest religious proposition of all — the existence of God — is, according to Coyne, an empirical question. Here, he differs from many of his comrades in the anti-creationist movement who (at least for tactical reasons) impose a condition of ‘methodological naturalism’ on science which renders it incapable of evaluating the claims of religion, carving out a safe space in which believers can protect their beliefs while remaining sympathetic to science.

Coyne quotes several historical and recent writers, particularly Carl Sagan and the philosophers Yonatan Fishman and Maarten Boudry, while adding some examples of his own, to show how the existence of the God of scripture is a testable empirical hypothesis. The Bible’s historical accounts could have been corroborated by archaeology, genetics and philology. It could have contained uncannily prescient truths such as “thou shalt not travel faster than light” or “two strands entwined is the secret of life.” A bright light might appear in the heavens one day and a man clad in white robe and sandals, supported by winged angels, could descend from the sky, give sight to the blind, and resurrect the dead. We might discover that intercessory prayer can restore hearing or re-grow amputated limbs, or that anyone who speaks the Prophet Mohammed’s name in vain is immediately struck down by lightning, while those who pray to Allah five times a day are free from disease and misfortune.

Ancillary beliefs, such as the existence of an immaterial soul or a realm of fate beyond matter and energy, are just as falsifiable. We might discover a severed head that can speak. The data might show that bad things happen only to bad people. A prophet could predict earthquakes, epidemics, and terrorist attacks. My late aunt Hilda could beam a message from the great beyond telling us under which floorboard she hid her jewelry. The fact that these events are confined to tall tales and false memories which evaporate under scrutiny weakens the hypothesis that a God of scripture, who presides over immaterial souls, exists.

There are, of course, diluted versions of religious belief which survive such tests: allegorical interpretations of scripture, deistic gods who create the universe and then step back and watch what happens, erudite theological systems built on abstruse argumentation, and various liberal, humanistic, Spinozist, and East Asian philosophies which equate ‘God’ with the laws of the universe or barely mention him at all. The new atheists have come under withering attack by defenders of religion for focusing on literalist and fundamentalist brands of folk theism, which, they claim, are held by a minority of believers instead of these more abstract and sophisticated systems.

Coyne accepts the challenge. He cites polling data showing that in fact a large majority of religious people believe in the miracle-working, soul-supervising, prayer-answering God of the Bible, rather than the recondite abstractions of academic theologians. Nor, for that matter, are most theologians content with God as a mere metaphor or euphemism, or as a bystander who is impotent when it comes to accomplishing anything that matters. (Not for the first time, a two-state solution is rejected by both sides.) Coyne educated himself in the works of the most ‘sophisticated’ theologians, and pays them the respect of evaluating their arguments by the ordinary standards of intellectual discourse. He finds these arguments to be either patently false (such as that humans are endowed with an innate faculty for sensing the truth about God) or transparent ploys to defend the undefendable, such as the suggestion that the Resurrection was too cosmically important for God to have allowed it to be empirically verified.

Coyne’s final chapter is called “Why Does it Matter?”. The ultimate appeal of belief in belief is that religion is needed (at least by other people) as a bulwark against selfishness, shallowness, and immorality. Coyne replies that agreed-upon moral precepts, such as telling the truth and not harming others, are rules for living together that any intelligent gregarious beings would put into their social contracts, needing no divine sanction. In contrast, little good can come from parochial doctrines that cannot be justified by universal standards of reason. Coyne doesn’t dwell on obvious historical disasters, such as religious wars and persecutions, but he devotes a section apiece to some of the more insidious harms fostered by faith today: the withholding of medical care to sick children, the suppression of heretical biomedical research and public-health policies, the opposition to assisted dying, and the denial that anything should be done about anthropogenic climate change. In several sections, Coyne plays the ultimate empiricist trump card: data from Greg Paul showing that the godless democracies of northern and western Europe are thriving, while the religious ones — most pointedly the United States — have far higher rates of societal dysfunction, such as violent crime, preventable disease, and mediocre education.

In his book, Coyne has examined every talking point in the New Atheism debate but one: the allegedly shrill, militant, extremist, fundamentalist tone of the anti-God squad. Here he leads by example. Faith Versus Fact is unquestionably partisan, but its tone is matter-of-fact, and the offense that its targets will surely take will come from the force of his arguments rather than any ridicule or cheap shots. Indeed, my only real criticism of the book is that it has been stripped of the sass and wit that enliven his blog whyevolutionistrue. Nonetheless, Faith Versus Fact is clear and gripping, and should be read by anyone interested in the tension between science and religion. By meeting the claims of the faitheists and accommodationists head-on, Coyne shows that in this debate the two sides aren’t preaching to their choirs or talking past each other, and that the truth does not always fall halfway between two extremes.